Does science have a central doctrine?

by Neil Rickert

Physicist Alan Lightman apparently thinks that there is a central doctrine to science.

As a both a scientist and a humanist myself, I have struggled to understand different claims to knowledge, and I have eventually come to a formulation of the kind of religious belief that would, in my view, be compatible with science. The first step in this journey is to state what I will call the Central Doctrine of science: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe. Although scientists do not talk explicitly about this doctrine, and my doctoral thesis advisor never mentioned it once to his graduate students, the Central Doctrine is the invisible oxygen that scientists breathe. We do not, of course, know all the fundamental laws at the present time. But most scientists believe that a complete set of such laws exists and, in principle, is discoverable by human beings, just as 19th-century explorers believed in the North Pole although no one had yet reached it.

First a little context.  Lightman is apparently arguing the view that science itself involves some kind of faith.  That’s a claim that we often hear coming from theists.  However, Lightman is no theist, so it is a bit surprising that he makes this assertion.  John Wilkins argues against the view that science involves faith, and it was John’s post that led me to Lightman’s Salon article.  John criticizes the view that science involves faith, and rightly so.  But he does not directly comment on the question of whether there is a central doctrine.  Dan Dennett criticizes Lightman in a follow up Salon article but Dennett does not comment directly on the central doctrine question.  I will comment on it here.

1:  Is this doctrine central to science?

To repeat it, here is the asserted doctrine: All properties and events in the physical universe are governed by laws, and those laws are true at every time and place in the universe.

I do not see that as central.  It was never taught in any science class that I taught.  I don’t recall seeing it stated in any science text book.

2:  Do scientists believe that doctrine?

As far as I can tell, some do and some don’t.  Perhaps the majority of scientists and philosophers would say that it is probably true.  But I doubt that such a belief guides their research.  Most scientific research is driven by a desire to better understand the natural world, rather than by commitment to any particular beliefs.

3:  Is the doctrine used as a premise in a logic argument?

I am not aware of any use of it as a premise.  Some people mention it during informal reasoning, but not as a premise that is the basis for any logical proof.

It is unlike religious doctrines

We already see the difference from theological doctrines.  Those doctrines are central to the religion, they are taught, and they are used as premises in logical argumentation.

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8 Comments to “Does science have a central doctrine?”

  1. This “central doctrine” is neither a scientific doctrine nor is it required by all philosophers of science. The only presumption of scientists is that when they investigate a domain or phenomenon, there is an explanation to be found. There are many domains scientists do not individually investigate, and more than a few they have not yet done as a profession. Whether the presumption there is an investigation serves as a “doctrine”, or is, as I think, merely a programmatic assumption for the particular topic under investigation (or else, why study it?) is a philosophical question.

    And philosophers do not all agree upon this. For example, Bas van Fraassen rejects scientific realism because all that counts for him is that scientific theories explain and predict, not that they tell us what the nature of the world is (which he thinks if theoretically impossible). This is a claim that physical events are not accessible, only epistemic constructions are.

    But I would return to the first point: that scientists only ever expect they can explain the local domain they are investigating, and that this is a prerequisite for even attempting to find out about that domain; it has no further metaphysical import than that. And even this is defeasible. It may turn out (and often has) that a domain resists explanation (consider psychological properties) for a long time or perhaps forever. No scientist I know precludes the formal possibility of this; only that they hope it is not true. So much for doctrines.

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  2. Wouldn’t it be a better question to ask whether scientists have central doctrines for their own lives? You speak of science as if it is some independent organism detached from human element involvements. People, not robots drive the machine of science, point the microscope or telescope in one direction or another, interpret data to reflect predispositions in their various philosophies. A gun has no morals but the one who holds the gun his moral may be in question. Science is ideally an objective pursuit of truth, but can be swayed one way or the other by the human elements that are behind it; they may overlook certain points or exaggerate certain points to make their case.

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    • Wouldn’t it be a better question to ask whether scientists have central doctrines for their own lives?

      Why would that even matter? Unless science actually depends on scientists having such a doctrine, it is surely an irrelevancy.

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      • Greetings Mr. Rickert,

        May I direct you to look at my statement again. Inanimate science has no conscience, how then can it espouse any doctrine. The community of scientists, however who operate the probative tools of science sometime are overcome by dubious agendas and may skew results to reflect such bias. If you mean to assign the same value to inanimate science and the community of scientists, that much clarity should be made. The community of scientists are peopled by individuals of various moral quibbles. If by them you mean “science” then the thesis question is as irrelevant as it is self evident. Science doesn’t drive itself, people drive science in this or that direction. Some people actually see truth as an obstacle. Take Einstein for instance he couldn’t see the merits of Quantum mechanics, but that didn’t negate the consequence of it’s reality. According to Einstein’s quibbles he took a different road till the day he died.

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        • Science doesn’t drive itself, people drive science in this or that direction.

          Quite correct. But unless this driving of science depends on the people subscribing to a particular doctrine, then it is an irrelevancy that some of those people happen to hold that doctrine.

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          • Inasmuch as it is consistent for people to go with their convictions; this driving of science is heavily dependent on the people who subscribe to their particular doctrinal split needles, thus it is not an irrelevancy that they hold such doctrines as those doctrines drive the men who drive science. Einstein’s particular split needle held that God doesn’t throw dice as is suggested by probability doctrine of the Neil bohr, Robert Oppenheimers, of Quantum mechanics. According to his split needle Einstein pursued a relatively fruitless unification query, while the operants of particle quantum mechanics have given to us the world we have today. Should you take away their contributions, we should at once retire to the industrial age of steam engines and wire telegraphs. Their doctrinal split needles are therefore not entirely irrelevant, but of meaningful consequences.

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  3. John, I hate to quibble but I can’t help it (even though I think I agree with the general tone of your comment).

    Admittedly, your statement that “The only presumption of scientists is that when they investigate a domain or phenomenon, there is an explanation to be found” is qualified (or, as I would say, contradicted) later by “No scientist I know precludes the formal possibility of this; only that they hope it is not true.” But even with your re-definition of a presumption as a hope I do not think your statement really applies to all scientists. Some may seek patterns without looking for “explanation”, and even some of those looking for “explanations” may be at least equally happy not to find any. But if you did not intend “of scientists” to be interpreted as “of all” as opposed to just “of some” then the statement becomes trivially false on account of individual scientists who may make all kinds of idiosyncratic presumptions about their own particular domains of investigation.

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  4. It might be more precise to add “implicit” as a qualifier to what Alan Lightman has designated the “Central Doctrine of Science” in his 2011 Solon.com article “Does God Exist?”.

    This is because the Central Doctrine of Science is not an official principle, position, or policy taught or invoked from some top governing authority of science (as denoted by most definitions of doctrine). Instead, this general idea can be inductively inferred to be a common denominator or a general pattern or conclusion that reasonable men could see as a summary “theme” from looking at many, many wide-ranging and different scientific discoveries.

    As such, its more of a general conclusion about science than it is a deductive premise or starting point. It’s main application could be to distinguish science from non-science than it can be useful for use within science. The main problem with using the term “doctrine” arises from its religious or authoritarian connotations. Because science isn’t religious or dictated by some central or government body, “doctrine” might be the wrong term to use in such a context.

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